You’re probably seeing it in your daily lives – you couldn’t find that particular piece of Samsonite luggage for the family summer trip, or you had to wait until early October to get it. You’re frustrated with back-to-school shopping because GE microwaves for your child’s dorm room are scarce. Don’t even try to find an inexpensive Specialized mountain bike available for delivery before September.

Supply chain bottlenecks are rampant these days, and it’s not just in retail. Despite an enormous amount of planning by our factory partners, the branded merchandise industry is being impacted as well. The good news? There are things you can do to help avoid the bottlenecks. We’ll give you some direction on how to bypass this supply chain pain.

But first, what the heck is going on today? It really boils down to a surge in demand accompanying worldwide Covid-related labor and equipment shortages. When Covid was raging in 2020 and demand for goods shrank, many Asian factories (where the vast majority of our industry’s goods are made) laid-off workers and retooled/repurposed their equipment to concentrate on PPE products such as masks, sanitizers and the like. And many of those workers left the manufacturing cities and went back home. Across the globe, workforces were reduced significantly at ALL key points along the supply chain: factories, export warehouses, terminals, trains, trucking, import warehouses, and local distribution centers.

Shuttered auto factory. Courtesy of Reuters

But as vaccines rolled out across the world in early 2021, demand for all kinds of goods increased sharply as it looked like the end of the pandemic was in sight. People began leaving their homes and traveling to restaurants and malls again. And buying cars and appliances. And traveling again. And buying branded products to support their organizations. All with a vengeance. As early as February 2021, ships were carrying 800,000 containers of goods across the globe, up a whopping 49% from February 2020.

And we know what happens when demand outpaces supply – prices go up. The cost to get a container of branded merch from Asia has increased 400% since January 2020. Retail behemoths like Amazon and Walmart are using their size and leverage to lock in all available factory and container capacity, leaving other importers, including those in our industry, scrambling. So even if our factories can get goods produced, getting those goods to you becomes a real challenge. Airfreight is prohibitively expensive, rail yards in Chicago, St. Louis, and Kansas City are swamped, an unprecedented number of ships are stuck offshore at the Port of Long Beach, and trucking is experiencing a shortage of drivers and equipment. Add in a late-summer surge in demand for imports due to stimulus dollars in consumers’ pockets and back-to-school buying, and it’s a mess.

Ships anchored off Port of Long Beach, February 2020. Courtesy of The Wall Street Journal

So, what does all this mean to you, fearless (and possibly frustrated) branded merch buyer? In a nutshell, limited factory capacity, a stressed global transportation system, and rising costs mean longer waits/reduced inventory and increased prices for branded giveaways that help you strengthen your business.

But there are ways to mitigate the pain:

  • Buy Early – now is the time to buy for the Holidays and Q1 2022. If you haven’t bought for late-summer or Q4 needs, please contact your Account Manager today to make sure you lock down the necessary inventory so you don’t end up empty-handed.
  • Send final art with order and approve Sales Order & Proof ASAP – getting inventory allocated quickly is trickier today, as some of our supplier partners are worried about cancelled events so they are waiting until the Sales Order and Proof are approved in this uncertain environment.
  • Made in USA – always a smart choice, but there’s never been a smarter time to look at our Made in USA options. Most of these aren’t susceptible to the many global pains impacting imports.
  • Online Store programs – if your branded merch is already on the shelves in one of our warehouses, you’ll have less to worry about. Interested in a program for your org, check out the  options available for your needs.
  • Services vs. Products – take a look at some of our eXperiences, which can give your event the engagement and ROI that simply handing out branded product can’t always achieve.

  • Blanks, FTW. Our team can source blank goods and get them decorated locally in many cases, cutting back wait times.
  • Expedited Shipping – while more expensive, sometimes paying more in freight to meet your important deadline makes a lot of sense even though it’ll cost you more cents.

At Brand Fuel, we weathered the Covid pandemic better than most, thanks to loyal customers. Along the way, we tried to educate our clients on how to appropriately stay in touch with customers and employees during the pandemic’s early days, and how to turbo-charge the impact of branded merch once there was light at the end of the tunnel. And today, we’re here again to help you navigate the twists and turns of a very funky supply chain and get in your hands the goods you need to successfully promote your brand and memorably impact your audience.